Cosmology: Time and History and the Creation Myths

John J. Collins

John J. Collins

It is essential to bear in mind that ancient religion was not dogmatic or systematic in the manner of following Western faiths. There were no creeds to which everyone subscribed. There were several creation myths in ancient Egypt. Each city that rose to power formulated its own myth of creation.

In the cosmogony of Heliopolis, the creator-god was Atum; in Memphis, Ptah; in Hermopolis and Thebes, Amun. Each cosmogony, however, had only one creator-god, and he was credited with giving life to the gods as well as to humanity.

The sun-god reappears in almost every creation account, and his name is often joined with that of other creators (Amun-Re, Re-Atum). The actual process of creation was conceived by human analogy. One model supposed that the origin of life came from the creator’s semen.

In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Atum generated the first divine couple from himself, either by masturbation or by spitting. Another model associated the creative power with the utterance of a word. In the Memphite Theology, Ptah created “through what the heart plans and the tongue commands.”

A third model, based on the work of an artisan, was exemplified by the potter-god Khnum. Life was often thought to have originated on a primaeval mound, which emerged when the primaeval flood receded.

These Egyptian creation myths are remarkable for the lack of conflict in the process. Egyptian history did not lack conflict, but the myths projected a sense of stability and permanence. This stability was expressed in the concept of maÚat, an all-embracing principle of order that governed all aspects of nature and society. A creator-god such as Ptah and Atum was “lord of maÚat.” MaÚat was sometimes portrayed as a goddess, Maat, the daughter of the sun-god Re, who accompanied him as he sailed across the sky.

The sovereignty of the creator-god had its counterpart on earth in the rule of the pharaoh. The conflict often encountered by the monarchy was acknowledged in the myth of Osiris and Seth, but this myth too ended instability. The evil Seth was defeated by Horus, the posthumous heir of Osiris, who then became king on earth. The living pharaoh was the embodiment of Horus, while the dead king, Osiris, was the ruler of the netherworld.

In contrast to the Egyptian creation myths, those of the Semitic world were stories of conflict. The best known of these myths is the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which casts Marduk, god of Babylon, in the role of creator. More precisely, it distinguishes two stages in creation.

In the beginning was a primordial couple, Apsu and Tiamat, often understood to represent freshwater and saltwater respectively, although this distinction is not explicit in the myth. The mingling of their waters produces the other gods. The creation of the world is a separate process.

The young gods kill their father Apsu, but are then endangered by the wrath of Tiamat. Marduk is the hero who does single combat with Tiamat and kills her. In return, he is made the king of the gods. From the carcass of Tiamat, he creates the world: He split her like a shellfish into two parts. Half of her he set up as a sky and posted guards to make sure that her waters did not escape. He further fixed the astral likenesses of the gods in the sky and determined the months and the year.

Finally, he made humanity, from the blood of Qingu, an ally of Tiamat, to serve the gods. Another Mesopotamian myth, Atrahasis, describes a different occasion and process for the creation of humanity, involving a mixture of the blood of a god with clay. The political overtones of the Babylonian myth are transparent. If the gods need a strong monarchy in order to ward off danger, so too does Babylon.

We do not have a story of the creation of the world from Syria or Canaan. The god El is called father and is said to have begotten other deities. We might infer that creation was conceived as a form of procreation. The closest analogues to Enuma Elish in the Ugaritic literature are found in the myths of Baal. These myths describe combat between Baal and Yamm (Sea) in one episode and between Baal and Mot (Death) in another. What is at stake is the kingship of the gods, under El. These myths are often viewed as cosmogonic, on the grounds that they establish order in the universe. Support for this view comes not only from the analogy with the Enuma Elish but from the frequent association of creation with the defeat of a monster in biblical poetry (e.g., Job 26; Ps. 89.10 [= 89.11 Hebrew]). These combat myths suggest that creation, or the order of the cosmos, is fragile and has to be reestablished periodically in the face of recurring dangers.

The canonical account of creation in the Bible (Gen. 1) is closer in spirit to the Egyptian myths where a sovereign creator creates by his word, unhindered by any opposition. (This is not necessarily to posit Egyptian influence. There is some evidence that the biblical writers were deliberately rejecting the Babylonian account of creation, as they use the word tßhôm, cognate of Tiamat, to refer to the deep without personification.)

Tales of primaeval conflict are also found in Hittite (Anatolian) mythology (ANET 120–28). One such myth tells how Kumarbi attacked the king of heaven (Anu) and bit off and swallowed his “manhood.” As a result, he became pregnant with three dreadful gods, including the storm-god.

The end of the myth is fragmentary, but it is likely that Kumarbi was eventually challenged for the kingship by the storm-god. In another myth, the Song of Ullikummi, Kumarbi rebels against Teshub, the storm-god. In this myth, Kumarbi impregnates a rock and fathers a giant, Ullikummi, who wreaks havoc on heaven and on earth. Eventually, the giant is crippled by the god Ea. This myth tells us incidentally that the gods severed heaven from earth with a cleaver. Yet another Hittite myth tells of a battle between the storm-god and a dragon, Illuyanka.

Greek mythology provides no comprehensive creation myth such as we have in the Enuma Elish. Hesiod synthesises a range of mythological traditions in his Theogony. In the beginning was Chaos (a yawning void). Then came Earth, Tartarus (a terrible place beneath Hades), and Eros. From Chaos came Erebus (a dark region between Earth and the netherworld) and Night. Of Night were born Aether and Day. Then Earth brought forth Heaven and the Sea. Then she lay with Heaven and bore numerous gods.

In contrast to Near Eastern mythologies, Earth is begotten, not made. While it is not clear how Earth, Tartarus, and Eros emerge from Chaos, the later stages of creation are explicitly sexual. While Heaven and Earth are not absolutely primordial, they are the progenitors of the great majority of the gods.

Heaven (Uranus) is the father of Cronus, who in turn is the father of Zeus, the eventual supreme god. Hesiod has his own combat myth: the conflict between Zeus and the Titans and Typhon, which ends with Zeus’s confirmation as king of the gods. This conflict is not related to the creation of the world, however (see further Myth). The primaeval character of Earth in Hesiod is consonant with the view of later Greek philosophers such as Aristotle that the world is eternal. This view was sharply at variance with the prevalent belief in creation in the ancient Near East. According to Hesiod’s Works and Days, the gods made the first human beings in the time of Cronus.

A quite different account of the origin of the world was proposed by Plato in his dialogue the Timaeus. Plato reasoned that the world must be created since it is visible and tangible, and all sensible things are in a process of change. The creator, whom he calls simply “god,” desired that all things should be good and nothing bad and therefore made the world as perfect as possible.

Accordingly, the cosmos became a living creature, endowed with soul and intelligence, and may even be called a god itself. Because of its perfection, it was imperishable. The emphasis on the goodness of creation is reminiscent of the biblical account in Gen. 1 and made the Timaeus attractive to later Jewish and Christian philosophers. Plato’s creator is a craftsman, a dÁmiourgos, like many of the creator-gods of the Near East.

As in the myths, creation is not fashioned out of anything. Where the myths began with the unformed matter, or the biblical “waste and void,” Plato posited invisible and formless space. Plato’s idea of creation, however, was exceptional in the Greek world. Aristotle was more typical in regarding the cosmos as a self-contained whole, ungenerated and imperishable. Moreover, there is always some question as to how Plato intended his myths to be understood.

Plato’s view that the initial creation was good was fully in keeping with the ancient creation myths. Hesiod provides several explanations for evil in the course of his Theogony and Works and Days (e.g., Pandora’s jar). Only the Persian Zoroastrians, however, attempted to account for evil in the cosmogony itself. In their account, two opposing cosmic entities existed from the beginning: Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the wise lord who was the god of light, and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the god of darkness.

These gods struggled throughout history. In a variant of this myth, the opposing gods were twin offspring of one supreme good god. The idea of a devil or Satan, which appears in Judaism in the Hellenistic period and became very influential in Christianity, was probably of Persian origin. The influence of the Persian myth can also be seen in the Jewish Dead Sea Scrolls, which say that God created two spirits to govern humanity, one of light and one of darkness.

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